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How do You Teach a Melting Pot? Blend it Up!

by Elena Suglia
April 2014

Kenji O’Brien always knew he wanted to teach.  Since graduating from Brown in 2009 with a Sc.B. in Human Biology, he has immersed himself in experiences to increase his understanding of what it means to help people learn.

Helping people learn, rather than “teaching them,” is a better way to look at education, Kenji believes.

Kenji O'Brien_Behind the Science.docxKenji with ship and pens









After leaving Brown, Kenji spent eight months teaching English classes in a rural Chilean town.  For many people there, he was the first American they had ever met, although in a twist of irony his partner who co-taught English with him was named “America,” even though “She didn’t really speak English.  She was a French teacher.”

Kenji’s passion for education only grew while he was in Chile, and he applied and was accepted into the Stanford graduate program in education, which was an especially good fit for him because Stanford’s program “places a big value on the cutting edge of research,” by grounding theory and pedagogy in personal experiences.

In 2010, Kenji completed his Masters in education at Stanford and joined a student-teaching charter management organization in Northern California called “Summit Public Schools” (SPS) consisting of six schools, one of which Kenji helped found at Tahoma.

Like a handful of other charter schools around the nation, SPS opens schools with just one grade, and adds a grade each year. Since its inception in 2004, Summit Public Schools have increased their faculty from five per school to 16 currently, with a growth to 22 slated for next year. The organization’s leaders believe that steady growth allows a school to start on a strong foot and build from a sturdy foundation.

Blended Learning

Compared to teachers at traditional schools, SPS faculty members emphasize habits of success and cognitive skills versus spending 90% of their time and effort on teaching and reinforcing content, said Kenji. “There is no fixed knowledge, he said, which fits his own personal dogma that teachers would be more effective as coaches, should emphasize skill development such as time management and perseverance, and should encourage students to develop their own passions.

Kenji O'Brien_Behind the Science.docx“The students own their own education. They are self-directed learners,” explains Kenji.  “The environment of ‘teaching’ doesn’t reflect the real world environment.  Kenji aims to help his students “to be resourceful enough to seek out what they need to gain the skills to navigate and be adaptive to a constantly changing job market, and to build habits to be successful.”

We are training students to be resourceful enough to seek out what they need, to gain the skills to navigate and be adaptive to a constantly changing job market, and to build habits to be successful.”  As Kenji puts it, “faculty members are more effective and professional as life coaches than as content-delivery machines.”  Kenji believes that “All kids want to learn,” but only if they are given the tools and freedom to direct their own learning experience, and only if they are given adequate guidance and support to feel their own progress and success.

“Feelings of success and confidence breeds success,” he said. SPS have no traditional end-time of the school year,  allowing students to spend the time they feel they need to master a particular subject area.  Students don’t graduate until they finish all the  pieces.  “Kids shut down because they feel like they’re failing.  Time is fixed, but learning is  variable.” For example, Kenji’s students can access online playlists at any time and in any place to further learning.

Students together with samples, smilingMeanwhile, in the classroom, teachers run multi-month classes designed to hone writing, reading, and oral communication skills.  Classes are grounded in projects that allow students to apply and practice these skills. This type of learning style is preferable to the “inch-deep, mile-wide hodgepodge of material across the curriculum” that is usually taught in K-12 schools across the country.

Kenji says his experiences at Brown, such as working as a Teaching Assistant and doing education outreach through the Swearer Center, have “have helped inform why I’m a teacher and translate into why my school is the way it is.”

Kenji emphasizes that SPS intentionally targets a heterogeneous group of students from all walks of life.  That way, kids are put in the mix: not just stuck in impoverished or affluent areas surrounded by people just like them.  All students take the same classes: there is no “high track” or “low track.”

“Fundamentally, it boils down to relationships.”  Relationships are a crucial part of all that the students do.  Each teacher has 18 students, and they teach and follow these students from the moment they arrive at school until the moment they graduate.  “We are the people that make sure the students don’t fall through the cracks.  We are life coaches and learning coaches, fostering relationships and helping students maintain those relationships.  That is one piece of the program that will never change.”

Such an optimized, blended learning environment is “not a silver bullet.  We are not solving education inequality.” Still, Kenji’s end goal is to see all 50 million US public school  students personalize their education and succeed in life someday.

And, he is helping to shape that educational landscape, one student at a time.

Kenji with arms wide on mnt

Let’s be Well Red- Combating Anemia and Thalassemia in India

By Rajvi Mehta’13

“Anemia and Thala- what? Are these some new disease you have found?”, “Why has our doctor never mentioned this to us?” These were the responses I was met with as I talked to slum women in Mumbai (India’s economic capital) about anemia and thalassemia this summer.

A deficiency or defect in Hemoglobin is called Anemia. This defect or deficiency in Hemoglobin may be caused by iron deficiency, vitamin B12 deficiency or thalassemia. Thalassemia is the genetic cause for anemia. A person with one defective beta gene is said to be thalassemia minor while a person with two defective beta genes is said to be thalassemia major. The only way a thlassemia major is produced is when both parents are minors and are unaware of this. A thalassemia minor myself, I had decided to carry out a project, ‘Let’s be Well Red’, under the supervision of the Family Planning Association of India, India’s leading and largest reproductive and sexual health organization. The goal was to increase awareness about anemia and thalassemia, along with nutritional guidance, free testing and treatment for slum women. I planned to create a model that could then be replicated in different parts of the country.

We managed to treat 1000 Indian women and more are underway. Of those tested so far, 80% were anemic and 10% of the women were thalassemia minor. Few of these patients had already had a thalassemia major child. It was sad that something so prevalent was so unheard of.

I knew from the start that explaining the slum women complex topics like anemia would be difficult so, I created a short animated movie that highlighted the symptoms of anemia and the consequences of its neglect. With this film and the necessary clinical set -up, the project was launched in India’s largest slum- the Ghatkopar- Tilak nagar slum.

Although I had spent my childhood in Mumbai, I had never been to an actual slum. My idea of slums and slum dwellers was based on movies and pictures that I had seen. I vividly recall my first visit to the Sandheynagar slums in Ghatkopar. The area was exactly as I had imagined it: a line of shacks with poor hygienic conditions interspersed with some shops selling grocery, sweets and other delicacies. Noticing the prolific flies hovering over the food in the display windows, the outreach worker accompanying me asked me to turn right. At first I didn’t see any road to the right, so I stood there, puzzled. Sensing my confusion, the outreach worker smiled and pointed at a tiny gap between the closely packed shanties. As we squeezed our way through I was amazed to see a whole colony there. One of the women invited us into her house and I held my first camp there. I was a little skeptical as to how much these women would understand as I explained them about anemia, thalassemia minor and thalassemia major. However, the women enjoyed watching the animated clip and many of them came up to me and said, “This is the first time we actually understood what anemia was and what it meant to have low hemoglobin levels.”


Over the next three months, I held anemia and thalassemia camps in different parts of Mumbai and camps at the Family Planning Association of India clinic. The women were first briefed about anemia and thalassmeia following which free blood tests were conducted. Using the complete blood count, a thalassemia index was calculated for each patient and suspected cases were further tested for thalassemia using hemoglobin-HLDC. Anemic patients were put on iron pills and thalassemic patients were put on folic acid pills. Counseling the women was a very fulfilling experience as many of the patients opened up to me and got their doubts cleared. Nutritional guidance and cooking camps were held to show the women how different dishes can be made using iron rich food. The diet of these women was insufficient in most nutrients and many of them had severe vitamin deficiencies. 90% of the women had no idea which food items contained iron but when explained, many of them implemented the changes for their children as well. Every patient who followed the treatment saw an increase in their hemoglobin levels over a three month period.

The project garnered a lot of attention not only from the media but also from the government of India. The camps were covered by local newspapers and the animated clip was played on national television. At present students from different schools and colleges are carrying forward this project. Students of Jai Hind College are in the process of making a documentary on this issue. Priya Dutt (Member of the Indian Parliament) has decided to use this project as a model and will be carrying out similar projects in different parts of India.

Nutritional Guidance and Report

The patient interaction taught me more about my own country and people. It truly was an empowering experience and it made me realize the difference one person can make. I was able to put my classroom knowledge into practical use and actually affect peoples’ lives. This taught me that it doesn’t take much to cause an impact- all you need is the desire to do so.  Thanks to Brown for making this opportunity available via the Swearer International Fellowship (Swearer Center, Brown University).

A Bio Undergrad Abroad

By Daniel Bernard ‘12

This past fall (2011), I was fortunate enough to study in Costa Rica through a global health program sponsored by Duke University and the Organization for Tropical Studies. I first I stayed with a host family in the capital, San José, for approximately one month and then lodged at two of the three OTS biological stations in other parts of the country. During my time in Costa Rica, I visited INCIENSA (the Costa Rican Health Department) and multiple health clinics, toured INBIO (the National Biodiversity Institute), explored banana and pineapple plantations, and visited four different indigenous communities to learn about the spiritual, cultural, and healing practices within their communities. Along with this, I was able to travel to Nicaragua to observe the health care system and compare it to that of the Costa Rican and United States systems. During my mid-session break, I had the opportunity to travel to Panama City, and visit the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Naos Island and Barro Colorado Island laboratories. It may not have been a “typical” study abroad program in that there wasn’t much luxury time as we were kept busy with a great deal of traveling and site visits integrated into the curriculum of the program. But, it was well worth it. Despite all of the exhausting days, torrential rain, broken-down buses, and starving mosquitoes, it was all still worth it.

Some friends and I (far right) standing in front of Arenal Volcano in La Fortuna, Costa Rica.

I must admit that when it came to biology, my interest leaned much more towards the human end of the spectrum than the natural prior to attending the program. And much of this I attribute to my urban residences as a child.  However, in the midst of the lush, green, and vibrant surroundings that were the backdrop to my adventures, it was near impossible not to fall in love with the majesty of Costa Rica’s biodiversity. Neither I nor many of my friends back home could imagine taking four-hour hikes in the rainforest to see the pristine waterfalls mentioned in native folklore or going on a walk with a tribe’s chief to learn about medicinal plants; but it happened and I was humbled by it.

Before, everything that had roots, leaves, and was green I just considered a plant. It might have been short, tall, red, yellow, evenly, or oddly pinnate, but their novelty never really struck a cord with me. It was because of a course in Ethnobiology I took this past semester that challenged me to think differently. My professors conveyed to me the importance of the environment by encouraging us to think more broadly of human relationships with nature. They did it in a way that elucidated the methods by which humans have shaped their environment for centuries through agricultural intensification, animal domestication, and industrialization and discussed the effect these practices have had on human health.

What intrigued me most during my program occurred during a lecture we had in class about shamanic practices. A professor talked to us about traditional ecological knowledge and the ways in which humans have been using herbs as medicines for thousands of years. Even the development of modern antimalarial drugs that contain quinine, he claimed, stem from the knowledge and practices of indigenous cultures that harvested these plants. And so he often posed the questions: how should physicians and scientists approach the practices of these spiritual and physical healers? And what is the value of these individuals to their society and western societies? It was his way of bridging indigenous cultures and botany that finally helped me to see the relevance of plants to human life and better appreciate the environment around me.  Now, whenever I see ginger for example, I notice more than a dirty orange root. I see Zingiber officinale, a plant belonging to the same order as banana, a very valuable herb in the spice trade, an anti-inflammatory, and an overall panacea to many cultures. Plus, it’s the primary ingredient of one of my favorite sodas!

Tie-dying in Brunca indigenous territory using natural dyes prepared by the native women. The yellow color comes from the roots of Curcuma longa and the blue from Indigofera hirta.

All of this is to say that my study abroad program taught me one very important thing: we all play a very important part in the world and things are all more interrelated than we may think. I think this is especially important to consider as science majors because the innovations in any field on any side of the planet can be of considerable importance to other fields. This can be hard to imagine.  But for example, the next advancements for a more efficient Intel processor could later power the computers that can better track bird migrations, which could later provide a model for potential areas throughout the world at risk for avian influenza. To coordinate this global effort you would need physicists, ornithologists, microbiologists, epidemiologists, etc.  As trite as this may sound, the possibilities are endless, and thus demonstrates the need for creative scientists that value collaboration and understand the relevancy of other disciplines to their own.

Frankly, I came to understand this interconnectedness from studying abroad. By talking to students and professors from other universities, interacting with community leaders and local people, and living outside the United States, I gained a greater perspective of my work. In a sense, it gave meaning to the things I’m trying to do because I know that there are others working towards the same goals—maybe just not using the same methods or speaking the same language.  Too often I hear biology concentrators claim that they don’t have the time to study abroad, or that they can’t waste a semester abroad because they wouldn’t get any credit for courses through their department. Luckily, there are programs out there that have a more scientific focus to suit your needs and there are universities that offer courses for which you can receive credit. Just do your research, consult the Office of International Programs, and talk with academic advisors. If you want something bad enough, you’ll make the time to do it. I did and it changed my life, and I encourage you to consider it for yourself if you haven’t already. It might help you broaden your understanding of the things you’re learning in your textbooks and in the laboratory by seeing them put into practice.

You might even get a chance to attend a soccer game! By the way, that was my professor in the back in the red and his friend, a player for the Saprissa Dragons, which we were rooting for.


“The Art of Biology Exhibition” by Beverly Skillings

In celebration of the 2010 Poster Day, undergraduates in the Biological Sciences gathered at Andrews Dining Hall to present their research projects. This year produced one of the finest displays of posters showcasing an eclectic and complex assortment of scientific topics. Of the thirty-seven participants at Poster Day, thirty-three are completing Honors this year.

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Following Your Nose: Professor Wessel’s Journey into Science

By Noura Choudhury

He made his debut on the dance floor by winning the first ever Dancing with the Profs competition. Rumors fill the campus that he can run a marathon faster than the time of a final exam. In Sidney Frank Hall, his massive potted plants, enlarged versions of his leafy office decor, adorn a corridor and breathe life into the Life Sciences building. Though he may tango at night and blend in with students on bikes in the morning, Gary Wessel is best known at Brown as a popular professor in the Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry Department and principal investigator of the Providence Institute of Molecular Oogenesis (PRIMO) that researches the mechanisms of development. Almost every aspect of Gary Wessel, from his silver shoulder-length locks to his journey into academia, has a story behind it that reveals his dynamic nature as a scientist, father, outdoorsman and sports aficionado rolled into one convenient package.

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A stride forward for global health at Brown

By Jennifer Park ’09

A boy is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in rural Kenya, a death sentence in places where refrigeration is a rarity. The insulin used to treat the disease cannot withstand sweltering heat. More than 7,000 miles away in Haiti, medical students are anxious to become the physicians that their country desperately needs. But the bookshelves of their severely underfunded school lie vacant.

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Bio-POSTER DAY 2009!

Poster day floor

Undergraduate Research in the Biological Sciences was celebrated in our annual Poster Day, held on April 21, 2009, in Andrews Dining Hall. There were 39 poster participants, 32 of whom are completing Honors in the Class of 2009.

This year, the event was accompanied by the first annual Biology/Art Nexus Gallery display, showcasing student artwork. Included were original illustrations, sculpture, prints and photography that reflect the sensuous interface of nature and design.

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The Eyes have it: Getting to know Professor David Berson

By Matthew Scult, 09


“It was always in the back of our minds, that if we were right, this would be huge,” said Professor Berson, remembering the excitement he felt before making the discovery of a lifetime.

David Berson is credited with discovering the third type of photoreceptor, overturning the traditional view that the only types of photoreceptors were rods and cones. He is a professor of Neuroscience at Brown and was recently given the honor of being elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). An avid researcher, Berson has a wide range of other interests ranging from music and politics to hiking and gardening. Berson used to play the mandolin and guitar and he said if he could not be a scientist, he would probably be a Bluegrass music performer.

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Professor Swartz at Bat!

By Jittania Smith, ’11

Sharon and Pteropus

A quick peek into Professor Sharon Swartz’s vibrant office immediately reveals that she is not your ‘typical’ mechanical biologist. Every surface is covered with colorful artifacts reminiscent of a different facet of her life – projects from past classes, gifts from appreciative students, large pictures of her family and an array of art supplies. Take a closer look and you might spot something as unique as a piece of art constructed from human teeth or any number of bat-themed memorabilia.

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